Comala starts with a denial. The documentarian is interviewing his mother, and she says “no” over a dozen times in reference to whether or not her husband was a hitman. We can’t tell if she’s in denial or just doesn’t know about who he was. It’s an engrossing opening that feels personal. What follows is meandering film that deteriorates when attempting to convey meaning that haphazardly buoys up in the end during a subsequent introspective interview once again with his mother.
Gian Cassini forces perspective from external lighting sources. Casting a single beam of light on carefully laid out images adorning a table. They mean nothing to the viewer. He the looks into a MacBook at other images. They to are absent any force. Emotional or narrative. Gian then uses a projector to project a couple of those images onto his face, in an attempt to convey thoughtful intent. What we actually get is a shabby, incongruent, choice that lacks any tact and causes distrust in addition to dislike of our storyteller.
It’s easy to see why this first time film was shelved for three years. It stumbles around from meticulously staged shots that reek of unsubtle meaning, to personal handheld interviews with family members and friends of Gian’s father, and neighborhood walks through old haunts. Rather than Comala being a story about a man, the hitman the interview starts out with, it’s about the filmmaker. His childhood and how he sees himself. It rings hollow, as a boy who’s not yet a man trying to figure out who and what he is from external sources rather than his own actions. A large ego can ruin a good film, at minimum that’s the case here. There will surely be films of great quality and merit in the future that explore histories of violence among family members in Mexico, this is not that film.
Pascal-Alex Vincent’s Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist is a love letter to a master gone to soon. Vincent’s direction is notable in it’s unobtrusiveness, gently propelling us with sleek effortless editing along many beats that Perfect Blue, Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, and Millennium Actress fans already know. Long before this documentary was on my radar I longed to know the master more, to get a deeper sense of his creativity to understand how he came to be an artisan. I also suspected from cursory information that he was too reserved a man to ever give those secrets away.
The beginning of the film lay the groundwork of his life pre-motion animation. His interest in Manga and some of his influences. After that brief introduction we’re introduced to perhaps his most notable film these many years later and what I think is one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time. Perfect Blue. An adaptation of the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. In which an Idol transitions to acting and an obsessive stalker begins to threaten her life. Aronofsky who makes numerous interview appearances in the film tried to get a live action adaptation off the ground in the early 00’s and has cited it as influence for multiple projects, most notably Black Swan.
It then continues along to Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika. Cited and focused on in their order of creation and release. We learn that Kon was including characters from his next would be film Dreaming Machine within the world explored in Paprika. Along the way many collaborators chime in citing shared experiences with Kon, his creative process, work ethic, dual personality, often remarking on Kon’s ethereal personality that even his closest collaborators cite when asked who he was. They don’t really know, they describe what he did and how, but “who” Satoshi the man was seems to escape definition.
The film also details Kon’s television series Paranoia Agent. Which he used to leverage opportunities for burgeoning animators fresh out of college, and to experiment with collaboration. Assigning a different director to each episode he explored numerous ways to detail a coherent story with a revolving door of artists and artisans along the way. Moments of deep emotionality are detailed by a few in the cast and crew, Junko Iwao explains that she was insecure taking the role of Mima in Perfect Blue and that she didn’t want to play a character who’s being beaten for the directors pleasure. Kon opened himself up to her and shared perhaps more than he did with other collaborators that he put himself within the actress, that she was a representation of him as an artist within the industry of Japan feeling exploited and used. His frequent composer Susumu Hirasawa refused to work with Kon on his last project Dreaming Machine, and tearfully wishes he could apologize and thank Kon for believing in him, giving him opportunities, and bequeathing a career onto him that he may not have otherwise achieved.
Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist is a comprehensive and quick look at one of the most influential animators of the century. Though it isn’t one, it does feel a bit like a gravestone that one places their hand on, and drags their finger along in search of understanding what was, and what may yet be that this person had a hand in. Pascal-Alex Vincent should be commended for his work as assembler and director, when you’re detailing a life lost it’s easy to get beleaguered, the quick runtime and filmography backbone to the film propel it along far quicker than one might expect. If you’ve spent time with Kon’s films before, this a great way to appreciate the artisan that made them, and maybe find out which of his projects that you haven’t seen and would like to. If you haven’t seen any yet, this would serve as a lovely introduction.